Neil Gaiman. Photo: Rex Features
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Distraction techniques: Neil Gaiman’s new book proves you can’t read a short story online

Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances reminds us that stories demand all our attention.

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances
Neil Gaiman
Headline, 352pp, £18.99

Is any writer so joyously comfy in the digital age as Neil Gaiman? He has a singular ability to spot a new platform, climb up and sing from it in his own voice. As @neilhimself, he has over two million followers on Twitter. His big-hearted commencement speech “Make Good Art” has hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube. He is even responsible for one of those dodgily attributed quotations that flutter around Tumblr: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” This is, in fact, a punchy Gaiman précis of a complex paragraph from G K Chesterton.

Reading this collection feels like looking over the shoulder of someone whose browser has a thousand and one tabs open. Here’s a potential episode of Doctor Who; there’s a piece of Sherlock fan fiction, a fairy tale, David Bowie, Saint Columba. But all these clicks and hits are linked to one place – a good story, which is “the purest and most perfect thing” a writer can create, as neilhimself says. There are tales in this collection that are as pure and perfect as anything you’ll ever read. “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” is a sly gem of a ghost story. “The Sleeper and the Spindle” is a dark, witty inversion of “Sleeping Beauty”; “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”, in which a mysterious stranger enlists a guide to take him to a cave full of cursed treasure somewhere in the Highlands, is a masterpiece that could have been written by Stevenson.

It is interesting that Saint Columba makes an appearance. Columba began his exile on Iona in penance for his part in the 6th-century Battle of the Book, a conflict that had its origin in his secret copying of Saint Finnian’s psalter: a kind of medieval illegal download. The subsequent ruling – “To every cow its calf, to every book its copy” – marks an important moment in the history of books. Were they beautiful, magical objects, to be carried into battle as charms (as the psalter was)? Or were they a means to disseminate information? Should their magic stay locked inside or should it be shared? Trigger Warning seems to grow out of a similar rift – the alternating currents of struggle and synergy that flow between the page and the electronic media. Lots of these stories began life on the internet. “The Truth is a Cave . . .”, on the other hand, first appeared as a lavishly illustrated old-fashioned hardback.

Authors love writing short stories. Publishers – with heroic exceptions such as Comma in Manchester and McSweeney’s in San Francisco – hate publishing them. So the credits in the back of Trigger Warning make a moving read. The list of occasions and invitations to which Gaiman responded with a story is a map of the tiny fissures in the concrete of commerce, through which these flowers have forced their way into the light. That’s how it is with short stories. They find a way through.

Trigger Warning is full of brilliant borrowings from stories that I’m guessing Gaiman first encountered in the Armada books of ghost stories (they were numbered one to umpteen and could just as well have been called NOW That’s What I Call Gothic!), or the Alfred Hitchcock Presents . . . anthologies, or the folk tales on Jackanory and Tales from Europe. Gaiman’s collection celebrates the durability and adaptability of the short story itself.

Turgenev famously said: “We all came out from under Gogol’s coat.” He was talking about Russian literature but he might also have been describing form’s ability to speak in what Frank O’Connor called “the lonely voice” – to create a space where the marginal and the odd can be heard; the voice you hear in Raymond Carver or George Saunders. A great short story leaves the page and smuggles those voices into the culture. There’s a direct line from the shivery clerk in Gogol’s “Overcoat” to Chaplin’s Little Tramp, just as there is from Boule de suif to Stagecoach.

Think of how many times you’ve used “The Ugly Duckling” or “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to help you navigate your way through life but how infrequently you have read those texts. They’re like memes: always changing, always recognisable, detached from their origins. Which has led people to proclaim hopefully that the short story is due a revival because it fits with our new, shortened attention span. You can read them on your phone! You can read them in ten minutes! We could put them on Reddit and finally make money!

In fact, the opposite is the case. You can’t read a short story properly online. Every word counts. You can’t drift. You have to surrender to “a beginning, a middle and end” that takes you “across the universe and back”, as Gaiman puts it. For all his joy in the tumble of Twitter and Google, these stories also express his ability to do the obverse – to switch off and concentrate. They demand all of your attention, something that our one-click world cries out to you never to give. So, to read a short story is a countercultural act, a little rebellion. The genre is at its best when it deals with discomfort, with feelings and people you don’t want to think about: the gaze in the street that you try to avoid, the noise in the night you pretend not to hear. That’s why it’s important – more so now than ever. 

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder